Fostering Connection and Reflecting Humanity in Action

This week the Restoring Family Links Blog will focus on migration and the work of the global Red Cross to protect and support migrants. For more information about this work, check out the International Federation of the Red Cross' migration campaign #ProtectHumanity.

“Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” - Sara Ahmed

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, Migration Focal Point, Washington, DC

As anyone will tell you, I am a person who finds connection in almost everything.  The more we can connect, empathize and understand, the more we narrow the gaps between us. That is why as the stories, narratives and decisions developed from the most recent population movement facing the European Union (EU), I couldn’t help but think about the Americas experience in migration, the human face, the connection and the depth of humanity. 

In discussing this with my friend and colleague, Jennifer Podkul, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, we came to the conclusion that there are many connections between what has been happening along both the land and water migration routes leading to the EU and the trajectory of Central America (and beyond) to the US.  We found these connections not as a point of comparison, but as a validation of the humanitarian consequences people face in forced migration all around the world every day.

It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation, in such a way as to make the conditions for migrants more humane.
— Pope Francis Message for 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Sept 3, 2014

Since then, stories and blogs linking disappearances in the Mediterranean to deaths in the desert and approaches to persons seeking refuge to the migration context in the US have emerged.  Before addressing those similarities, I want to dissect these variables a bit more – stories, narratives and decisions.  They don’t happen in isolation and often impact the bigger picture.  Usually we can use stories and narratives – in both positive and negative ways – to inform decisions, actions and interpersonal reflections.

Stories come from truth and human experience.  There are stories we can connect to, by virtue of our own humanity.  At the time Jennifer and I spoke, everybody was talking about or posting pictures of Aylan, a little boy washed ashore on a beach in Turkey.  His father, the remaining survivor, continues to live through this immeasurable pain, long after the posts are no longer in our news feeds.  His story is heartfelt and touches each of us – some asking, some wanting to understand and some knowing, the level of human desperation one must reach to make the decision to cross treacherous waters with your family into the unknown.

As I viewed the photos and tributes of Aylan, I thought about my first year at the American Red Cross. During that time, I had the opportunity to hear the story of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez.  Alfonso lived in Vista, California with his five US born children for over two decades.  One day, as he was running an errand, he was pulled over. Undocumented, but with family deeply rooted in the United States, he was removed from the US, and returned to Mexico, a country he had not lived in for years. In his fourth and final attempt to get back to his family, he became lost, dehydrated and died in the desert.  His children, born in the US, left growing up without a father

In the week or two prior to the photo of Aylan, there was also a story in which people seeking refuge were found dead in a truck in Austria.  Each person had a name, someone who cared for them.  Again, that evoked memories of the years I lived in Texas. At that time, in 2003, a smuggler left behind a truck full of migrants at a truck stop in Texas. In that case, 17 people died from heat and dehydration.  These stories speak to the dangerous routes that migrants take in desperation.

These stories convey the reality of human suffering, a suffering exacerbated by the lack of safe, dignified, movement and protection of the person.  Our collective humanity causes us to lament these tragedies on a visceral level, yet the stories continue at an unnerving pace, begging the question how can this continue to happen and what can we do?

Narratives, on the other hand, emerge from a combination of the statistics, stories and the interpreted or implied perspective applied.  Narratives are malleable, we have control and can manipulate them in positive and negative ways to convey story and influence decision.  One narrative that has emerged both in the EU and last year during the peak of migration specifically of unaccompanied minors and families in the US, is the one of a ‘migrant crisis,’ or ‘border crisis.’  

These words create a narrative of surprise, scarcity and criminality/otherness.  The reality is that often the trends and trajectory of migration are clear and indicate spikes and lulls long before they happen.  Migration is a phenomenon that comes from many factors – violence, conflict, economic disparity, disaster, family reunification, climate change, lack of opportunity and much more (often in combination).  Moreover, using this term places the crisis at the borders and not in countries of origin where violence, conflict, economic and ethnic marginalization are the sources.  Similarly, words like deportado, retornado, and now migrant (versus refugee), reflect mistrust and criminality, leaving the underlying message of not scarcity - as in, “we don’t have enough jobs, resources, etc., for ‘them’.” 

Narratives also have the power to transform and elevate discourse, developing more integrated ways to think about migration.  Narratives are best when they are informed by human experience/stories, or bring one closer to human experience.  The British Red Cross does work in this direction, through their anti-stigma campaign. By using curriculum to engage youth in discussions on what it means to be a person who has had to leave their country, the anti-stigma campaign aims at developing empathetic community responses.  This campaign, builds on the narrative and stories of human experience which aim to foster humanity.

After Jennifer and I met for coffee, with thoughts abuzz on caffeine and migration, the next morning we awoke to the map you see below.  I looked at it again and again – the similarities were uncanny.  The humanitarian needs of migrants are met once again with staggering decisions, often decisions that further endanger and exacerbate the vulnerabilities of migrants.  Sealing borders, administrative detention of people often seeking asylum and discussions on “burden sharing.” 

Source: Frontex

Source: Frontex

In the Americas region, and in the EU, sealing off borders has only led to the use of more treacherous routes. A study by Arizona State University, “In the shadow of the wall,” found that deterrent methods have previously and continue to increase potential for exploitation, leaving some in the hands of smugglers or traffickers (also see another article by Mary Fan – “When deterrence and death mitigation fall short”). 

Additionally, the use of the term “burden sharing,” evokes the externalization of borders taking place inside/outside many nations, including the United States and Australia. By moving the border, either south in the Americas or to external islands in the case of Oceania, international and moral obligations to process and provide protection to asylum seekers are avoided. It also allows governments to frame people who should be treated as a benefit to social fabric as a burden.

While there are significant differences between the two contexts, there is a need to develop a stronger, more cohesive voice on migration – sharing stories which foster our collective humanity, driving discourse on the humanitarian consequences of migration and supporting actions that reduce human suffering while increasing human dignity.  Humanitarian diplomacy, while grounded in our principle of neutrality, should always be built on humanity.  This can be done when we bring the stories to the forefront, build strong diplomacy around the humanitarian consequences and renew our mission to protect all of humanity.